In April, the conferences of two international groupings – BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) and IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) – brought some of the world’s highest-profile heads of state to Brazil. Amidst all the fanfare, Brazilians reserved their heartiest handshakes, and largest front-page news spreads, for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It is no secret that business between India and Brazil is booming. Both governments recently committed to doubling bilateral trade to USD 10 billion in the near future; and with Indian firms sinking serious money into ambitious long-term projects in Brazil, such as offshore drilling, that number is looking attainable.
Of late, India and Brazil have been poking into each other’s ambit in several interesting ways. The letters i and b have been popping up in several new acronyms floating to the top of the alphabet soup of geopolitics: in addition to BRIC and IBSA, there are now rumblings of a BASIC (Brazil, Africa South, India and China). Beyond the high-profile conferences and photo-ops, however, it is worth examining the basis of genuine partnership, what each constituent really stands to gain from these new alliances, and whether these groupings of vastly different countries are cohesive enough to last. BRIC, the most prominent of the bunch, was the brainchild of a Goldman Sachs economist writing on emerging economies in 2001. In its early days, the primary purpose of the grouping was for investment bankers interested in buying into emerging markets. This was a nifty marketing ploy, since it meant that risky investments, such as those in oil-price-dependent Russia, could be bundled into a palatable package.
Over the past year, however, the Russian economy has taken a serious hit in the global financial crisis, while Brazil, India and China have emerged relatively unscathed. As such, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the BRIC economies have come under scrutiny, and the BRIC group does not look as logical an alliance as it once did. ‘We are four large countries with abundant resources, large populations and diverse societies,’ was about as much common ground as Prime Minister Singh could point to at the recent BRIC conference. Even in its present configuration, the BRIC group has not been much of a success as an economic bloc, with the vastly different economies having kept the group from formulating any collective economic agenda. One striking example of how these countries’ interests fail to line up is with regard to oil prices. India and China would benefit from cheap petroleum to feed their growth, while Russia and Brazil, the latter of which recently discovered vast new offshore reserves, would want to see that price move higher.
Still, when it comes to one-on-one deals between individual member states, the BRIC countries do have a lot to offer each other. India specifically has a lot to gain. Acquisitions and partnerships in Brazil are a foot in the door for Indian IT and telecom looking to expand into the Latin American market. Indian petroleum firms, which in the past have been crowded out of participation in new oil fields, have been granted access to exploit Brazil’s newly discovered oil. Such deals, though, can and have been cut without any involvement of the BRIC countries as a collective, thus elevating the importance of cultural and diplomatic ties between states.
Burgeoning political and economic ties aside, there is much more to Brazil’s current fascination for all things Indian. When this writer first came to Brazil three years ago, an answer of ‘Nepal’ to the question ‘Where are you from?’ would elicit nothing but hazy stares. ‘Close to India,’ I’d try, to at least point people in the right direction; but the conversation usually stalled there, as people did not know what to make of the region.
Last year, that all changed. Admittedly, Nepal still does not figure on most Brazilians’ mental maps. But say anything about India, and you are sure to get a bright smile and an ‘Aare baba’ or ‘Bhagwan ke liye.’ That this is hardly the most common Hindi vocabulary is perhaps to be expected, considering its unusual source: Caminho das Índias, a whirling, colourful telenovela (soap opera), inspired in no small part by Bollywood extravaganzas, had Brazilians glued to their televisions from January to September last year. Singlehandedly, the novela took the Brazil-India connection from the dry world of the boardroom and beamed it straight into Brazil’s living rooms. And the burgeoning relationship did not stop there. A R Rahman’s tunes suddenly blared in markets and discos, Brazilian woman sported bindis, and my Brazilian friends all wanted to know if I knew how to make chai.
The series’ title is a tricky one to translate. The closest literal translation would be ‘The way of the Indies’, but ‘The road to India’ gets closer to the gist of it. Set in Rajasthan but with a Brazilian cast who liberally intersperse Portuguese with titbits of mispronounced Hindi, the plot of Caminho das Índias revolves around two torrid romances. The first pits true love against the caste system, when Bahuan, a Dalit adopted into a Brahmin family, falls in love with Maya, a beautiful Brahmin girl who works in a call centre. Maya’s family is scandalised, but their forbidden love perseveres and eventually, of course, prevails. Meanwhile Raj, whose family had already arranged his marriage to Maya, falls for a Brazilian woman whose attempts to unravel the complexities of Indian social custom throw up a whole new raft of complications.
As Brazil’s novela-crazed millions – whose lives are a far cry from those of the glamorous urban-elite protagonists of most such shows – are keenly aware, such shows do not thrive on realism. However, the producers at TV Globo went to great lengths to lend this series a certain affected authenticity. The plot touched on themes that would not be out of place in an Ekta Kapoor production: caste conflict, an arranged marriage, generational clashes and even saas-bahu quarrels. Sizeable parts of the novela were filmed in India, and the sets and costumes, though a tad garish, were convincing, down to the ban on on-screen kissing. Take away the Portuguese dialogue, and a viewer would be forgiven for thinking that this was the latest Bollywood blockbuster.
Initially, I too was excited and went along with the flow. But when people started asking, for instance, whether I knew to whom my parents were planning to marry me off, I realised that, for some Brazilians, the series had perhaps been too convincing – and leading to a false conflation of India and the rest of Southasia. Put a slickly produced story on a screen, and even if it is pure fiction the audience will often take away a lasting set of impressions. Many, both in and outside Southasia, still rave about director Danny Boyle’s portrayal of the ‘real’ India in the mishmash of inconsistencies that was Slumdog Millionaire. Brazilians learned that they are not immune either, when Cidade de Deus (City of God) added the gun-toting drug kingpin to the world’s stereotypes of their country. Like much of Brazil’s first exposure to the Subcontinent, Caminho das Índias has left a lasting mark on the Brazilian psyche.
So what does Brazil make of Southasians in the wake of Caminho das Índias? Here’s a short list: We all get married off by our parents (and are OK with it); we mostly dress in kurtas or saris; we are all Hindu, and very religious; our architecture is largely a burlesque throwback to Mughal times; and true love inevitably overcomes the caste system for a happy ending. In fact, the novela does not always make things quite this simple, offering fairly nuanced takes on, for instance, caste and inter-generational relations; but little of this has stuck in the public mind. Equally telling, however, is what the novela leaves out. In this idealised world, there is no room for Southasia’s slums and tens of millions of desperately poor. Nor is there much room for the image of a modern and progressive society, which many in Southasia are promoting. Put together, this makes for a patchy picture of inaccuracies that blend together into a revised version of that old foe, Orientalism.
At the same time, this is a kinder Orientalism than that of Edward Said’s stinging denunciation. Many Brazilians have come away from Caminho das Índias with an admiration for Southasian society. Southasians’ ingrained respect for elders, and the inclusion of the old in family life and decision-making, tends to elicit high regard in a society where the elderly are often isolated or ignored. I was most surprised at how many Brazilians now accept arranged marriage as a fundamental pillar of Southasian societies, in stark contrast to many who see it as an unacceptable affront to individual choice. Still, even flattering stereotypes provide no escape from the fundamental traps of an Orientalist view.
Whether good or bad, Brazil’s misconceptions form part of a skewed perspective of Southasia. The region’s practices are never judged on their own faults and merits, but rather only in comparison to foreign – in this case, Brazilian – cultural notions of right and wrong. Rather than search for common ground, Brazil’s fascination continues to feed on the view of Southasians as exotic, and always different. For all its merits, Caminho das Índias is not, of course, Southasia speaking for itself, but rather foreigners (however sympathetic) speaking on the region’s behalf.
Surely that need not be the case. There is no reason that we cannot build on Brazil’s initial impressions to create a truer picture. This would require a lot of work and translation, but the more that Southasian-produced works are brought to Brazil, the faster that monolithic stereotypes can be chipped away. And in this, one thing is now absolutely certain: Brazil will be very receptive. And this is a two-way street, as today most Southasians’ idea of Brazil fails to go far beyond skilful footballers and scantily clad samba dancers on tropical beaches. To its credit, Caminho das Índias has meant that the average Brazilian now ‘knows’ more about Southasia than the average Southasian ‘knows’ about Brazil.
As Brazil grows closer to the region, it seems inexcusable to allow that friendship to be based upon misconceptions that belittle us all. In another age, Mohandas K Gandhi said, ‘I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.’ To which, sagacious as ever, he added, ‘But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.’ As globalisation breeds new brands of Orientalism, it is still up to us to keep our footing.
~ Roman Gautam is a Kathmanduite currently residing in Rio de Janeiro, and a regular blogger on the Himal website.